County stormwater ordinance revision and rate changes to be pursued to help pay for more projects to reduce flooding and improve water quality

Already, measures undertaken have reduced annual homeowner flood insurance claims to ‘nearly zero’ since 2005

This is the graphic Public Works Director Spencer Anderson showed the commission on Aug. 27. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Since 2005, when Sarasota County staff completed a series of stormwater projects and implemented related regulations and a regular maintenance program, the number of flood insurance claims has “nearly dropped to zero,” Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, told the County Commission on Aug. 27.

He showed the board members a slide that compared the number of annual federal flood insurance claims to rainfall amounts between 1979 and 2017, with hurricane events noted by year, as well.

Prior to 2005, Anderson added, county homeowners filed a significant number of claims.

They are saving approximately $7.5 million a year in insurance premiums, he said, because of county initiatives.

Noting that he has worked in the insurance industry for 34 years, Chair Michael Moran pointed out, “That translates to people having money in their households” because their premiums have gone done. That is significant, Moran emphasized, especially in the state of Florida, which has “volatile [insurance] rates.”

Anderson’s goal through his Aug. 27 presentation was to ascertain board support for changes in the county’s Stormwater Environmental Utility Division, as indicated by a rate study, which staff hired a consultant to begin in 2018. Along with working on means of improving the quality of stormwater that ultimately ends up in county watersheds and then in Sarasota Bay, and enhancing maintenance standards, Anderson said, staff plans to pursue projects to protect the community from sea level rise.

Among staff’s next steps, he said, are to update the Stormwater Division’s business plan and then develop a new rate structure linked to those revisions. A staff memo provided to the commission in advance of the Aug. 27 meeting characterized the latter goal this way: “Develop and maintain an assessment rate model to reconcile actual annual expenditures to projected [expenses], providing annual financial review of the assessment forecast,” as suggested by the consultant for the rate study, Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions Inc., which has an office in Lakeland.

Pinecraft, the Amish and Mennonite community just east of the city of Sarasota, is flooded in 1962 after the passage of Hurricane Donna. Image courtesy Sarasota County

One priority, Anderson indicated on Aug. 27, is to secure funding through the revised rates program to enable staff to seek federal, state and regional grants to facilitate initiatives.

No such dedicated revenue stream exists, Anderson pointed out, for staff to offer as matches for money that is available.

Staff plans to work on the 1989 county stormwater ordinance and the related rate system as part of the 2022 fiscal year budget process, Anderson said. By the end of September 2021 — with FY 2022 beginning on Oct. 1, 2021 — staff hopes to have the revised program in place, he added.

“It’s been a long time since we looked at the ordinance itself,” Anderson noted. In fact, he told the board members, he was not sure it had undergone a thorough review since its implementation. “We wanted to see what had happened [since then], “to see if we’re keeping up with best practices.”

As staff members work on changes, Anderson pointed out, they will “go through all the appropriate public meetings,” as well as presentations to the relevant county advisory boards.

“Are we going to have some measurable outcomes?” Commissioner Nancy Detert asked.

“My intent is to bring back something that is very objective and measurable,” Anderson replied.

This is an aerial view of the Celery Fields stormwater project, which has become an internationally known bird-watching area. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Charles Hines commended Anderson for the plans, emphasizing the need for the initiative to get underway immediately. “Our community’s growing,” Hines pointed out, “and it’s going to continue to grow … Water quality is the reason people are coming here.”

In the past, Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out, some staff members reportedly had been reluctant to propose new programs to the board because of the expense. He hopes none of them remain in county employment, he added. “Bring us the ideas in full, open sessions,” Maio told Anderson. “We’ll sort through [them].” The board members were elected to make policy decisions and approve funding, Maio added. “We cannot slow things down … because folks … on our staff can’t figure out where the money would come from.”

Some of the proposals Anderson suggested that day, Maio said, “can be turned around relatively quickly.”

A history lesson

Sarasota County, Anderson pointed out, “was the first county in the state of Florida that had a stormwater utility.” The only other municipality with such a program at that time was the City of Tallahassee, he said.

The county initiative, Anderson continued, was “born on a significant amount of historical flooding,” especially in the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s.

The primary focus of the program, he noted, has been to prevent flooding of structures.

Some property owners get frustrated, he acknowledged, when staff explains to them the existing county level of service standards. For example, Anderson said, acceptable flooding for a 100-year storm event is 12 inches on neighborhood roads and parking areas. He described such an event as one with “10 inches of rain in 24 hours.”

This graphic provides details about county levels of service in regard to stormwater management. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Celery Fields in the eastern part of the county, he continued, “is one of the crown jewels of stormwater management in the state of Florida.” That project protects nearly 200 homes downstream.

He also pointed out that county staff maintains 15,077 drainage structures, 522 miles of pipes, 429 miles of canals, 283 ponds and lakes, and 375 miles of roadside ditches. The number of work orders runs around 6,000 a year, he said.

Further, Anderson told the board, “We have a responsibility to monitor and model water quality. … We have a lot of data, with all the maintenance that we do.”

The information is available on the county’s Water Atlas, he pointed out. “It’s a very transparent site [on the county website].” For example, he said, the Water Atlas provides real-time rainfall measures.

Paying for projects

Then Anderson talked about the fact that county stormwater assessments have not been modified since 2009.

Three types of assessments are included in the program, he added. A $3.10 fee per parcel for customer service is applied to 155,718 parcels; to cover planning efforts, the county charges $23.10 per Equivalent Stormwater Unit (ESU), which is a single-family home; and it charges $64.45 per ESU for maintenance. The latter two assessments are applied to 164,265 ESUs each year, according to a slide Anderson showed the board.

The slide incorporated a screenshot of the relevant portion of the annual tax bill for a customer in the Sarasota Springs area of the county. That resident, whom Anderson indicated was a typical county homeowner, pays $90.65 per year to the Stormwater Utility in non-ad valorem assessments.

Anderson showed the commissioners another slide that was shaded to reflect the number of assessments paid in specific areas of the county. The majority of homeowners pay all three assessments, the slide said.

This graphic shows areas of the county shaded to reflect the number of stormwater assessments paid. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Among proposed policy changes, Anderson continued, will be those related to residential development. Since the 1980s, he pointed out, “The land coverage … is so much more.”

He presented another slide to illustrate that point, comparing the amount of greenspace in a residential area in the 1980s to the same area today.

To deal with that situation more effectively, Anderson said, staff proposes switching from the ESU model it has been using to an ESU that reflects 3,153 square feet of effective impervious area.

This graphic shows an example of changes over the decades in the amount of building coverage on lots in residential areas. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Staff does offer credits to developers who comply with the minimum permitting requirements for stormwater management, Anderson pointed out, though he acknowledged staff has not done the best job of advertising that program.

“We’re giving up nearly four-and-a-half-million dollars a year,” he added, as a result of those credits.

When that credit program was developed, he explained, staff thought about 80% of the nutrients found in stormwater runoff were being treated. Instead, he said, staff has learned that the figure is 20%. Thus, the nutrient load for a new development “is much more significant” than it was when the credit program was established.

(“Nutrient load” refers to elements, such as nitrogen, that end up in stormwater that reaches the bay. Nitrogen is one of the chief sources of food for the red tide algae.)

Staff wants to create an incentive program, Anderson continued, which would lead to implementation of stormwater measures that exceed the minimum requirements. For example, he said, in the Southgate residential area in Sarasota, no stormwater ponds exist. Instead, pipelines were installed along the roadway when the homes were built. Therefore, one way to reduce the level of nutrients in stormwater runoff, Anderson said, is to encourage people to replace impervious surfaces — which do not absorb rainwater — with those that are pervious. Less stormwater would be the result, he added.

Other proposals

Another target for a new policy, Anderson continued, is sediment management.

“We want to reduce the erosiveness of our canal systems,” he pointed out, instead of having to make repetitive repairs. “We can implement new designs and new initiatives … to have a more sustainable canal and ditch bank system … that will allow for improved water quality and reduction in erosion.”

Moreover, he said, “We produce a lot of sediment,” so staff is looking for opportunities to sell it, which would generate additional revenue for the Stormwater Division.

This graphic provides details about the sediment issue. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“The cost of fill today, in the month of August 2020, is absolutely, phenomenally high,” Commissioner Alan Maio said. “So if we can sell [sediment] as fill … that’s great.”

Further, Anderson told the board, staff is considering a policy change that would result in a dedicated revenue stream to reduce localized funding through the completion of small infrastructure projects. “A handful of areas in the county,” he said, have to contend with flooding “every time we get a frog-choker around here.” As a result, homeowners ask county staff to ameliorate those situations, Anderson pointed out, but staff does not have the money to assist them. “It’s really a quality-of-life issue for them and also for us.”

Finally, policy changes will be proposed to deal with what Anderson called “coastal resiliency and risk mitigation.” Sea level rise “is a reality,” he said. Already, he continued, higher tides are having more of an impact in Sarasota County. Property worth about $22 billion is adjacent to roads that have an elevation below 10 feet, Anderson added.

“You can’t develop if you can’t deal with your stormwater,” Commissioner Hines pointed out.

This is one of the slides that Dr. Amir Arbissser of Siesta Key showed the commission during the Aug. 26 Coastal Setback Variance hearing. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Referring to an Aug. 26 public hearing regarding a Coastal Setback Variance on Siesta Key, Hines noted that one of the speakers who addressed the board members showed them slides of a home that won Platinum LEED certification for all its environmentally sustainable features. “We need to copy that,” Hines said.

For example, he continued, the next time a 2050 Plan development with 3,000 or 4,000 new homes is proposed east of Interstate 75, staff should ask the developer to make the community more environmentally friendly in return for stormwater credits. Then the developer could use that as a selling point for the community after it has been completed, Hines said. “It’s all within the design.”